Wayne Scanlan: Maybe expectations were too high for Senators
The booing was sporadic at first.
Then it fairly rained down on the Senators late in the third period as the outcome grew obvious and the Philadelphia Flyers’ lead grew larger. The ice chips settled at 5-0, Ottawa’s ugliest loss of a one-step-forward, one-step-back kind of season.
In a cruel twist, chants of “Alfie!” mixed in with the boos, as though this wouldn’t have happened under Daniel Alfredsson’s jurisdiction.
Fan frustration was understandable. Though they have an expensive roster, the Philadelphia Flyers came into town as a league under-achiever, and they put a worse beating on the Senators than elite teams like Chicago, San Jose and Anaheim had done. It was one of those nights. Stuff happens.
However, there have been other suspect nights, leading to grumbling over a 7-7-4 start, good for a middling ninth place in the Eastern Conference prior to Wednesday’s games.
Why are fans so frustrated? Because their expectations were through the roof.
Check out a few indicators from a fan poll conducted on this newspaper’s SenatorsExtra site prior to the season. Keeping in mind that often the keenest of fans respond to these polls, the numbers are nonetheless telling about what kind of performance Ottawa fans expected based on last year’s trip to the conference semifinal.
Asked to name the Canadian team most likely to win the 2014 Stanley Cup, 72 per cent voted for the Senators. Next closest were the Toronto Maple Leafs at 16 per cent.
How far will the Senators go this season? The favoured selection was “third playoff round,” picked by 29 per cent of poll participants. Nearly as many, 25 per cent, said the Senators would “win Stanley Cup.” Twenty-two per cent thought the Senators would be a second round team again, while the lightest option was the seven per cent who felt Ottawa would not qualify for the playoffs.
On it went. Erik Karlsson was a slam-dunk choice to win his second Norris Trophy (78 per cent compared to five per cent for P.K. Subban) and Jason Spezza was named the best choice to replace Alfredsson as captain (81 per cent in favour).
Rose-coloured glasses, everywhere.
What do you suppose those expectations for the season are as of today?
Is there a sudden realization that the Senators might not have been as good as we all thought in 2012-13, but were carried by hot goaltending over a short season (Craig Anderson, Robin Lehner and Ben Bishop all played exceptionally well in a truncated schedule)?
Amid the mirth of a first-round playoff victory against the Montreal Canadiens, this statistic tends to get swept under the rug: In the shots allowed category last season, Ottawa was 23rd among 30 teams, allowing 31.3 shots per game on average.
In other words, the plague of shots allowed this season is a worsening pattern, not a thunder bolt out of a clear blue sky. In 2013-14, the Senators are tied for dead last with the Buffalo Sabres in average shots allowed, each with 36.9 shots against.
It’s hard to thrive in that environment. Thursday’s performance was too typical — ongoing play in Ottawa’s zone and a lack of push the other way. In response Wednesday, head coach Paul MacLean had his team practice variations of the same breakout drill over and over for 40 minutes. Hockey 101. Centre man down low to help the defence, short passes to get out. Dump, set up. Rinse, repeat.
Players agreed they hadn’t focused on a single drill for an entire practice since minor hockey.
MacLean said the emphasis was needed because breakout issues are always a factor in games in which Ottawa does not play well.
‘WE PLAYED A CRAP GAME’
Centre Kyle Turris figures he was hardly alone among Senators players lying awake after the Flyers game going over the myriad mistakes made.
Turris called the game “embarrassing. Unacceptable.
“We played a crap game,” Turris said.
“Obviously we’re learning right now you have to put in that hard work to improve,” Turris added. “It was a step back (against Philly), but we’ve played better at home here and we’ve got to keep getting better and regain our form.”
According to Turris, it’s poor execution that keeps the Senators from rebounding in games and being the “pesky” group of last season.
“We’re not on top of our game,” he said. “Passes are not on the tape, we’re not transitioning smoothly. We have to make the simple play and get back to basics.”
And yet, to Turris, the high expectations of the pre-season were reasonable.
“After the two years we’ve had, everybody in this room knew we had a goal, to finish higher in the standings in the regular season and go further in the playoffs.”
Two years ago, the Senators extended the New York Rangers to seven games in a quarter-final series. Last year, Ottawa won a round.
It’s reasonable, in theory, to pencil in a longer playoff run for next spring. In reality, this is still a young team, especially on the back end, where there have been repeated issues of consistency and confidence.
“We’re still a team that’s growing, building toward being an elite team,” MacLean said.
Exactly. Maybe not now, perhaps in a week or two, we’ll have a better idea where expectations for this group should be set. It might be that fans should be satisfied with a team that plays entertaining hockey most nights, works hard and pursues a playoff position — any position.
Anything after that is in bonus territory.
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